Reading Recommendation

I have just finished University of Manitoba professor Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. He has released this chilling book for free on the internet, and I really highly recommend that everyone take the time to read it. The professor has spent his entire professional life studying the personality type he calls Right Wing Authoritarians (or RWAs). These are the kinds of people who strongly agree with statements like:

What our country really needs is a strong, determined leader who will crush evil, and take us back to our true path.

and

Our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the “rotten apples” who are ruining everything.

They strongly disagree with statements like:

A “woman’s place” should be wherever she wants to be. The days when women are submissive to their husbands and social conventions belong strictly in the past.

and

There is no “ONE right way” to live life; everybody has to create their own way.

Remind you of anyone? What’s really remarkable about Altemeyer’s work is that he has taken this basic measure of traits (essentially, how much more or less inclined to authoritarianism are you) and has elaborated and studied the ways that these people think, their fears, their biases and their incredible potential for exploitation by ruthless, amoral leaders (a.k.a. Social Dominators). He has succeeded in explaining why the crazy people who run this country act the way they do, and why they seem to have so much more power than the sane ones among us, tapping indignantly away at our computer keyboards. It’s a little scary to read the things that people will readily admit about themselves and their moral worldview. When I took his RWA test, my score was a 21 (out of a possible 160, for the most frightening among us). I was embarrassed about that extra point (caused by a strange question about the morality of non-religious people), because it seemed to me that his list was filled with such basic ideas of decency (or such obvious affronts to common decency), that they ought to form just the bare minimum of agreement we should all share in order to create a sustainable future and ethical system of government. What kind of constructive conversation can anyone have with a person who wouldn’t fully dissociate themselves from the statement: “There are many radical, immoral people in our country today, who are trying to ruin it for their own godless purposes, whom the authorities should put out of action.”

Maybe the kind of conversation that currently passes for political discourse in the USA?

It’s a throughly mind-bending, eye-opening work. And the style is colloquial and engaging. My only real quibble is that the questions on his surveys often seemed to marginalize the atheist’s point of view (and, for that matter, the non-Christian’s). I wonder if those questions were particularly designed for the Christian RWAs in his studies– in which case, obviously my complaint isn’t valid. If not, however, I’d say that he was missing out on many nuances of belief by forcing people to, for example, agree with the statement: “Our lives should be governed by high ethical principles and religious morals, not by power and greed.” (Chapter Five) Obviously, I don’t think our lives should be governed by power and greed (and you think that this is obvious to everyone else, too? Read the book.) On the other hand, I don’t think “religious morals” have anything to do with “high ethical principles.” There were a few other dubious inferences like that in his questions that I think could have hurt his surveys. Probably the biggest issue I had ended up in a footnote, when he describes a study that he believes shows how atheists can be dogmatic, too.

Essentially, he gave a scenario to a group of high RWA Christians, in which he proposed that there had been a major discovery of ancient Greek documents that, it turned out, significantly mirrored portions of the Christian gospels, only the role of Jesus was played by a child of Zeus named Attis. Everything, from the scenario to the language, was clearly parallel. This would seem to indicate that early Christians merely co opted an older tale. If this were true, he asked the students, would it make you reevaluate your view of the Bible as the literal, inerrant truth? Unsurprisingly, a majority of these fundamentalist Christian students said it wouldn’t change a thing. Now, clearly, this is evidence of a highly dogmatic mind completely closed to countervailing evidence, which was Altemeyer’s larger point. However, in a footnote, he claims that the opposite experiment revealed the same dogmatism about atheists:

Most (64%) of our active atheists also said they would be uninfluenced by the discovery of a “Roman file on Jesus” that confirmed much of the Gospels, including the resurrection…

If by “uninfluenced,” he means, “would not jump in the nearest river and get born again,” I’d say that that is the most rationally defensible position of the scenario, and not at all related to any supposed dogmatism of atheists. The fact is, a discovery of ancient scrolls that seemed to confirm the events recorded in the gospels would only lead me to think it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus actually existed, and something interesting happened to him at the end of his life that the Romans–with their far less advanced knowledge of physiology and medicine– misinterpreted. Anything more than that just goes far beyond the evidence. You’d think that this would be obvious. Maybe if his “atheist scenario” had instead been about a independent, scientifically confirmed supernatural event, like a flying nun or someone able to communicate with the dead in heaven, it would have been a more valid measure. The one he did use just seems like overenthusiastic Christian archeology.

Obviously, these are negligible quibbles compared to his larger argument, so I will no reiterate my recommendation to go forth and read it. It’s a chilling, fascinating read. As Altemeyer says:

Americans have, for the most part, been standing on the sidewalk quietly staring at this authoritarian parade
as it marches on, becoming more and more dismayed. Polls confirm that the great majority of Americans feel the country has been going in the wrong direction. People know “the room is filling up with smoke,” but most are just watching it happen.

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